Learning to Learn

Published: 2023-11-05

One thing I recently realized that immediately after my university studies is that I stopped almost all effort of actively trying educate myself. Of course, like anyone I'd pickup and learn new things as I'd go throughout life, like in the work environment where I took on jobs I had only superficial understanding which allowed me to learn a great deal. But why did this happen? I earned the degree, then there was no longer any reason to learn? The financial cost coupled with that piece of paper that said I did something was what kept me grinding, however there was something lacking in my life for years after graduation, which I later determined was the mere act of learning and personal development.

As I've gotten older (I'm 36 at the time of this writing), I've come to understand that learning itself is an active ongoing process that you must keep up not simply to have a better understanding of the world, but also keep your ability to actually learn sharp. Like a muscle that needs to be pushed, strained, and flexed in order to grow and maintain a certain level of strength.

That being said, I think it's also possible to learn new things but where our minds don't necessarily improve. You can pick up a bunch of facts (useless or otherwise), or memorize things to regurgitate later for a test, but I think real value comes from improving critical thinking abilities such as understanding cognitive biases, problem solving, logic, effective communication, etc. There is tremendous value in not learning what to think, but learning how to think.

Learning how to learn is one of the most valuable skills one can gain. I remember in my early college days, study skills were highly emphasized. Take weight loss for example. If you want to lose weight, it's foolish to keep a box of donuts or other junk food in the house. In that same vein, if you want to improve your mental capabilities or learn something, it's foolish to have digital distractions like video games, YouTube, or social media apps within reach.

I will say that college was one of the most enriching experiences of my life and it is a difficult thing to replicate outside that environment. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are fantastic, but I've had some issues with them, as I assume most other people have. First, I've only completed one course despite signing up for I don't even know how many. I think by not paying for something we unconsciously or otherwise assign it less value and therefore unlikely to finish it. With college courses, there's a financial incentive that exists where we don't want to waste money. Secondly, there is something lost from not being physically in a lecture hall, and not being able to interact directly with the professor.

Reading books is like calisthenics for the mind. As opposed to other mediums, it requires intense intellectual involvement from the reader, forcing them to keep their mind engaged. Reading was one of those things I let slip when it wasn't "required" of me, however over the past several years I've picked it back up, like meeting up with an old friend and wondering why we stopped hanging out. Reading books allows us to go far deeper into a subject than you could by reading a short form "article" or watching an online video that are optimized for SEO, clicks, advertisements, or promoting one political viewpoint over another. And a world of fiction can transport our minds to other places, exposing us to different ideas we would not have considered otherwise.

Taking on a new hobby/activity and can also scratch that itch of learning and growth. From my own life, Jiu-Jitsu is similar to chess in that it requires practice, strategy, skill, and anticipating what the other person will do, but with the added benefits of learning what your body can do (body awareness), improving physical fitness, and making new social connections.

Traveling to a foreign country and really experiencing a different culture than your own is not only a way to learn about that new culture, but it can also serve as a window into your own culture. By travel, I'm hesitant to refer to some of my traveling experiences as learning about a culture. For example, I've been to Phuket Thailand and Bali Indonesia, and both of those were catered to tourism and arguably not indicative of the culture of either country. On the other hand, while I was in Viet Nam, I had traveled all over the country with my Vietnamese partner and really immersed myself in her culture and traditions.

Too many people see learning merely through the lens of economical and financial purposes, and not for the sake of knowledge in itself. At one point I wrote a post about the value of higher education, and addressed the incorrect rhetoric that a college degree is waste of time and money, usually made by people who never had the drive or encouragement to pursue higher education, or never stoked the flame of curiosity, only seeing education as means to generate an income. Education stokes intellectual thought, as well as builds professional networks. If you're smart enough to receive it, then more education is usually always a good thing. That isn't to say a degree is required for a career, because there are a ton of career paths that don't require one.

The sayings "When you stop growing you start dying" and "the unexamined life is not worth living" ring true. A life without growth, learning, curiosity, philosophizing, without improvement of ones mental world, is a life of stagnance and mediocrity.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to send comments, questions, or recommendations to hey@chuck.is.